On writing negative reviews…

I was going to write about posting negative reviews earlier this month when I came across a story about Isaac Fitzgerald, the new editor of BuzzFeed‘s books section. Fitzgerald said that he’s not interested in writing negative reviews:

 “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

Tom Scocca wrote an excellent article “On Smarm” about snark and smarm, and uses an old Dave Eggers interview to highlight his point that what’s worse than negativity is smarm – “a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.” It’s a piety of sort, an appeal to an ideal of gentility or civility, but without the actual civility – I’d call it thought policing.

In Susan Jane Gilman’s awesome Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smart-Mouth Goddess, she makes the distinction between smarm and genuine niceness with a comparison between Rosie O’Donnell and Kathie Lee Gifford, saying that while both women are known as being nice, Gifford’s niceness is couched in judgmental and prudish piety while O’Donnell’s is genuine, free from the scolding, sanctimony. It should be noted that Kiss My Tiara was written in 2001, so the public images of both O’Donnell and Gifford have drastically changed in the 12 years since, but the point still remains: there’s a difference between being really nice and being nice only because you feel you have to be.

The O’Donnell/Gifford style of comparison works even better when looking at characters in The Simpsons – the show’s brilliant take on genuine niceness versus the stuffy faux niceness is wonderfully played out with its characters – specifically when we talk about the Simpsons, and how they contrast with the Flanderses and the Lovejoys. Though Homer and Bart have very selfish and often-destructive impulses, will default to decency when pushed; Lisa and Marge are arguably the two kindest figures in the fictional Springfield universe, and their kindness is a natural extension of their generally decent personalities – Marge in particular, though not perfect, seems to be the ultimate in what it means to be a good person – she can be judgmental and a bit of a nag, but she also is brave, intelligent, protective of human rights, and (for the most part) reasonable.

The Flanderses and the Lovejoys, on the other hand, behave in what could be deemed as socially-accepted behavior and in fact, they often are far more appropriate than the Simpsons – yet their niceness doesn’t come out of a genuine desire to do good, but out of piety, self-righteousness, and a desire to get into heaven. So even though in their actions, the Lovejoys and the Flanderses seem “nicer” because they don’t curse, steal, lie, cheat, or injure as each of the Simpsons has done, their niceness is couched in Scocca’s apt definition of smarm.

Whew, that’s some tangent – so how does this all relate to book reviewing, specifically negative book reviewing? Well, in Scocca’s aforementioned piece, he writes about a 2000 interview between Harvard Advocate‘s Saadi Soudavar and Eggers. The emailed exchange between Soudavar and Eggers shows the revered author’s fractured and complex relationship with criticism. He writes:

“The critical impulse… is to suspect, doubt tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art. I used to tear books apart and tear art exhibits apart – I was an art and book critic for a few years in San Francisco – but my urge to do that was born of bitterness and confusion and anger, not out of any real need to help or edify. When we pick at and tear into artistic output of whatever kind, we really have to examine our motives for doing so. What is it about art that can make us so angry?…But criticism, for the most  part, comes from the opposite place that book-enjoying should come from. To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart, and criticism is done, by and large, by impatient people who haves axes to grind…Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn’t a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live?

Eggers later goes on to write, “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”

I’ve read this interview – particularly Eggers’ plea a few times throughout the month, and it came to mind to me a few times this month, particularly when I would read Joe Queenan’s work, which is chock-full of the kind of snark that Eggers would faint at (I’d be curious to read what Eggers thinks about Queenan).

But is what Eggers wrote true? Sometimes it is – not all critics come from a place of good faith – and certainly a lot of film and theater critics are frustrated screenwriters and playwriters. But I have a problem with Eggers assertion that only filmmakers should criticize movies and only published authors (and successful ones, at that) should go after book reviews. Art is made to be consumed by the public, and because there’s so much out there, the public needs help in figuring out what’s great and what’s not-so-great.

An informed consumer should approach art like approaching the purchase of a new appliance. And thankfully because of the Internet, this becomes easier and easier. If one is interested in checking out the new Adam Sandler comedy, then IMDB.com has a great collection of reviews collected from various publications, Websites, and users; Metacritic.com does the same, so if you’re considering Beyoncé’s new album (which you should totally buy), then some quick research gives you an idea of what’s what…

So – do I write negative reviews? For the most part, no. Not because I don’t want to hurt feelings or am concerned about burning potential bridges for future opportunities. The most I’ll do is write mixed reviews. And why is that? Is there are that I have purchased/consumed that I have completely hated? Of course – Pitof’s Catwoman, Sam Harris’ Ham, the Fox sitcom Dads have all been cultural crap. But the kinds of things I review on my blog are usually works that I myself sought – so there will always be some redeeming quality to them.

For example, the most negative review I’ve arguably given was to Janet Hubert’s book Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom. The book is largely about Hubert’s negative experience working on Will Smith’s early 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Hubert, who starred as the “first Aunt Viv” has an acrimonious relationship with Smith that resulted in her firing and eventual blackballing from the entertainment industry. The story is gripping because all too many times women – particularly black women – are castigated and punished for speaking out and being assertive, unfortunately being locked in as “angry black women.” The problem with Hubert’s book was that it was badly written and sloppily edited – I did not go after Hubert in some nefarious manner as Eggers’ view of critics do – in fact, I came away from the book feeling sorely disappointed because Hubert’s story is necessary – especially in light of all the nonsense Michelle Obama faces because she’s expected to bend to different factions of society. Hubert’s tale of how society doesn’t like strong, opinionated, intelligent black women is one that needs repeating – but from a better writer.

What I find holistic and productive about the Internet is that everyone can be a critic, thereby dismantling Eggers’ hope that only professionals get a crack at it; online vendors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com have starred reviews from customers and IMDB has a forum where users can share their views on films. And blogs are a wonder because people like I – writers who haven’t been able to get their stuff published, as of yet, can share their views. There’s something validating about having one’s viewed shared, even if it’s not popular or agreed-upon; I’m glad when I get pushback from my readers – it inspires some fantastic debate. Educator Gerald Graff as always argued in favor of spirited, intellectual disagreements and critics often provide that.

I won’t deny that there are trolls out there who simply want to unload their hatred of a particular writer, actor, singer, etc. A quick perusal through any Barbra Streisand-related product on Amazon.com will reveal folks who resent the singer-actress for her liberal views – and a fast search on any Sarah Palin merchandise will also show anti-conservative bias among many. But these voices shouldn’t take the place of thoughtful critics.

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